Frank Cornelissen

Here is the story of Frank Cornelissen written by the very good wine writer Jamie Goode:.. “Frank Cornelissen is a Belgian who has begun a new winery on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily that is one of the most unique and unusual projects I’ve yet encountered in the world of wine. He began collecting wines with his father, and the first wines he bought were a mixed case of 1972 Domaine de la Romanée Conti. Despite the cost, he was hooked. Since then ‘wine has never left me’, he says. Later, he became a wine agent, and talking regularly with winemakers he became interested by the rather philosophical question of what wine actually is.

Over 20 years of tasting, he found that he liked wines that were an expression of culture, that are more evolved, and which express the soil more than the fruit. He decided that he wanted wines with a more natural approach and that he’d like to make wines without any treatments in the vineyard, winemaking or bottling. One day at a restaurant in Sicily someone bought out a sample of a wine from Etna. He immediately got in his car and drove round to the winery. Liking what he saw, he rented some vineyards on Etna, and made a wine in some abandoned sheds. This led to Frank buying an old ungrafted vineyard in 2001, which led to the creation of Magma.

Cornelissen’s estate consists of 5.5 hectares on the north slopes of Mount Etna. Of this, 2.5 hectares are ungrafted vines grown in the classic free-standing alberello (gobelet) system. The rest is given over to olive trees, fruit trees and bush. ‘I strive to abbandon monoculture in order to avoid the classic diseases, and have already intermixed the existing vineyards with various trees and plants,’ says Frank. ‘The newly replanted alberello vineyard was planted directly, with original branches of the pre-phyloxera vines, thus without the grafted genetically engineered rootstock. I decided for a low density for the areas standard (approximately 4000 plants/hectare) to give a better ventilation and the ability to cultivate other plants and vegetables in between the vines.’ 

“Our farming philosophy is based on our acceptance of the fact that man will never be able to understand nature’s full complexity and interactions. We therefore choose to concentrate on observing and learning the movements of Mother Earth in her various energetic and cosmic passages and prefer to follow her indications as to what to do, instead of deciding ourselves. Consequently this has taken us to avoiding all possible interventions on the land we cultivate, including any treatments, whether chemical, organic, or biodynamic, as these are all a mere reflection of the inability of man to accept nature as she is and will be.

“ Frank’s viticultural approach is the most extreme of all. He avoids any sorts of spraying, including the sulfur and copper remedies used by organic and biodynamic growers. He’s managed to do this even in difficult vintages such as 2004 and 2005, although 2002 and 2003 were so difficult that some treatments were needed to save the crop. The estate is 12 hectares, with 8.5 hectares of vineyards. The vines are free standing bush vines (known here as alberello; in France this is referred to as gobelet). The rest of the estate consists of olive, fruit and nut trees as well as brush. Frank doesn’t like the idea of monoculture, so interplants the vines with various local fruits and wheat. He planted a new vineyard a few years ago with ungrafted cuttings from existing old vines on the estate, and these vines were planted at lower density to allow cultivation of other plants between the vines.

Yields are tiny, averaging 300 g per vine. The vines are manicured, with great attention being taken to ensure the grapes are healthy, and a long, late harvest consisting of multiple passes through the vineyard in late October to mid November. Winemaking is crazy, but it works. Depending on the wine, fermentation takes place either in plastic tanks outside, or terracotta amphorae (known as giarre) buried up to their necks in crushed volcanic rock. Either way, both reds and whites have a long maceration on skins.

‘The skins, seeds and nascent wine remain unseparated during the entire transformation, maintaining a cosmic link, and enabling extraction of all possible aromas of soil and territory,’ says Frank. After fermentation, the wines are basket pressed and are then returned to amphorae for a long maturation. No additions at all are made during the winemaking process. Because no SO2 is added, Frank advises keeping the wine below 16 °C during transport and storage, and not decanting it.

Frank also has a ‘social’ pricing structure. Paradoxically, adding nothing to the vineyard or during the winemaking process costs a lot of money. This means that the wines are quite expensive. Initially MunJebel, the second label, was a bit too expensive, so Frank made it cheaper and increased the price of the top wine, Magma. The third wine in the stable is the Rosso del Contadino, which is more affordable, but still delicious. It’s a field blend of white and red varieties including Carricante, Inzolia, Catarratto, Nerello Mascalese, Alicante and Nerello Cappuccio.

It’s a cloudy wine, because it is bottled after the ‘noble lees’ in the amphora are stirred. These are some of the most fascinating wines coming out of Italy. These are for drinkers wanting expand their horizons and see what is possible when man intelligently takes a step backwards and lets the ‘terra’ do the talking.” 

Region: Etna, Sicilia
Country: Italy